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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mama Masha's Kitchen - Making your food work for you

Those who have families and work full-time jobs are very familiar with this challenge. You work your butt off all day, and then you come home and have to put in the “second shift” of laundry, house cleaning, waging the homework war with the kids and getting dinner on the table by 7:30 PM. All that – only to hear, “Pasta again?!” What can I tell you, cats and kittens, this happens to the best of us. The first thing to remember is that a culinary-disgruntled family doesn't make you a bad parent or a bad spouse. The second thing is to approach food not as a chore to be dealt with or as an enemy to be conquered, but as a friend and helper who can actually make your life easier behind the scenes.

Leftovers rock!

They especially rock when you take some time when things are less hectic and plan. Three things you can make in advance in quantity that will keep are soup, pasta and rice. Take some time to prep these on the weekend and you'll have a solid foundation for your meals for the rest of the week.

Pasta can be served hot with steamed or sauteed vegetables (either takes five minutes to prepare), with meat or fish (canned works fine too), and with red or white sauce (which you can get in a jar and then add to it to change the flavor). You can also use it cold, chop some veggies into it and drizzle it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a delicious pasta salad.

Rice works almost as well as pasta, although it's not as useable cold, unless you use it for a chilled pudding. A word of caution with rice – it does get dry, so when you re-heat or re-cook it, be sure to add some butter, water or broth to keep it moist. Other than that – the sky is the limit. You can do with rice pretty much the same you can do with pasta. Not only that, but if you toss it with some veggies and then pour an egg over it, you get a yummy omelet, making rice work double duty as both breakfast and dinner base.

Soup can be used as... well... soup. But if you want to have some fun with it, you can use it as a moisturizer for pasta and rice or as a reduction base for meat and fish. This means adding some soup in with whatever it is you are cooking and then carefully boiling away most of the water and leaving behind most of the flavor.

Be a stock holder

I am not talking about running off and buying a share of Brookshire Hathaway for a gazillion dollars. I am talking about bullion: chicken stock, beef stock, pork stock or any other meat stock for that matter. Many people make a point of buying beef, pork, ham or more interesting meats like lamb and veal, without bones. They are the same people who eat the chicken and then toss out the bones.

No. No, no, no, no! Get the bone, keep the bone, use the bone. Once all the meet is gone, put that bone into some water and make broth with it. If you have a slow cooker – even better, because you can stick it in there for a day and forget about it. Stock can be frozen in ice cube trays and kept in your freezer.

Stock is awesome to use with your basics – pasta and rice – to boost the flavor. You can add a cube of frozen stock to water before cooking either one of them or to a dish you are using for re-heating to seal in the moisture. You can also pop in a cube of stock when thawing the meat to give its flavor an extra dimension.

If you have a chance to splurge on a good cut of lamb or veal, definitely get one with a good solid bone in it and use it to make some good stock and take advantage of those sophisticated flavors in your cooking.

Don't ban the can

Some people look down upon canned veggies and fruits – and very undeservedly so. Canned stuff, bought intelligently, brings some color to your plate along with all those vitamins. I am not advocating against fresh produce – not at all! But I know how hard it is for people on a budget to get the fresh stuff and then see it go bad because it doesn't get eaten fast enough. So, use common sense, cats and kittens.

As you plan things out, I say get some fresh fruits and veggies for short-term cooking and get some canned stuff for long term. When buying canned fruit, make sure you get stuff that is in 100% juice and not syrup. For canned veggies, take some time to read the labels and avoid stuff with corn syrup, too much salt or sugar. Even small grocery stores have at least a couple of shelves of organic goods now – check out that section and see what kind of stuff you can find there.

Canned fruits and veggies can be served hot or cold. Either way doesn't take long to prepare. Canned artichoke hearts with peas, carrots, and a touch of balsamic vinaigrette make a great little side salad. And canned pears baked with a bit of honey or brown sugar served with some whipped cream might tempt even your kids into healthy eating.

A little goes a long way

Did you know that 100% lean and sugar-free is actually not the best for you? Fat free meats are actually harder to cook and digest. And fat free salad dressings actually prevent you from taking full advantage of the nutrients and vitamins in the vegetables. Why? Because the good stuff is often fat-soluble only. So, there is no way for your body to absorb it except with a little bit of olive oil.

Sugar-free means artificial sweeteners and that means, more of them added to the recipe to make it seem sweeter. As with fat, a little bit of natural sweetener goes a lot further and adds more flavor than a ton of the artificial stuff. So, before you reach for another pack of Sweet'N'Low, consider sugar-in-the-raw, honey, or agave juice. The latter in particular is worth looking at, because it is one of the most intense natural sweeteners out there. A tiny drop in your coffee or tea replaces a spoon-full of regular sugar.

Get sauced

Not that, you goofy people! Well... actually... that too. The point is – adding a little something to enhance the flavor of your meal. Sauces, dressings and seasonings are worth splurging on, because a little goes a long way. Now, before we go any further with this, you must promise me that you will never... ever... use store-bought cooking wines. Those things are loaded with sugar and don't taste particularly good. If a recipe (or your adventurous kitchen spirit) calls for cooking wine, just use... wine, or sherry, or port, or whatever it is. Use the real thing.

As far as getting some good stuff to perk up your food... Take some time to explore your local organic food stores and ethnic markets. If you don't have one nearby, here are some sources you can order from on-line:

Cooking Enthusiast

Sur La Table

Scottish Gourmet

Old World Specialties

Bittersweet Herb Farm

These places offer interesting seasonings, exotic salts, sauces, vinegars and pride themselves on using organic ingredients and sustainable processes. In addition to fabulously delicious products, they also have recipes with some suggestions how to use them to the best advantage.


Diane Nelson said...

Beautifully plated and excellent advice, as always.

PF Changs said...

The presentation of the dish looks great. Thank you Mamma Masha for the advice Take care.